Wednesday, August 4, 2010

How Buffy Saved My Faith

The Buffy TV Pilot
I came to write about something personal...and this time, it's...well, you know the rest.

Every generation has their heroes. My parents had The Lone Ranger and Superman. My sisters (ten years older than me) had Batman and Ripley. I had Buffy.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer premiered my freshman year of high school. I found myself instantly swept into her world every week during those formative years. Women my age grew up with Buffy. We hit milestones with her. High school, graduation, college, first love...the timing was magical.

And it didn't end there.

When Buffy sacrificed her life to save Dawn in the season five finale, I watched from my first college dorm room. I cried like a baby sitting on my crummy black futon. It was a fitting end to a terrible first year away from home.

I was separated from my best friend, away from home for the first time ever, and broken up with my high school sweetheart. In short, everything was terrible. (Or so I thought.) Everything was deconstructed.

My life as I knew it,  just like Buffy's, was over.

Fast forward.

In 2003, after a bad breakup with my college boyfriend, Buffy was a welcome distraction. I lived alone, in a tiny little shoebox apartment off-campus. I was too poor to pay for cable, even basic. So I borrowed one season at a time from a friend.

I binged episodes like it was my job. Before that phrase even existed. I was in more of a movie place at that time in my life. But I needed a hero that wouldn’t be gone in two hours. 

Buffy was everything I wanted to be times ten. She even had the social and emotional problems of a teenager who ran with the sensitive loser crowd. Just like me.

Other action heroines seemed immune to reality. Lara Croft lived in a mansion with endless financial resources. The Bride lived in the world of the Gods, like The Man With No Name. Her problems were too big to comprehend, having to fight 88 Samurai. Ripley was probably prepared for crazy science-fiction sized issues when she signed up to be a trucker in space.

And okay, Buffy had super strength. But she didn’t ask for it. She didn’t want to be anything other than a normal functioning girl with a normal functioning life. Which was, consequently, what I also wanted to be in 2003. Instead, I was a drippy, over-sensitive, needy girl running in a crowd of people who were maybe a little bit out of touch with their own humanity.

She stakes vamps through the heart.
Symbolism, much?
See, I ran with the church crowd. Most of my experience was overwhelmingly positive. I found my faith in high school. Then, I found a college church I liked to attend on-campus. But there are downsides to every culture. Being a church girl had some negatives.

The people I went to church with, a lot of them, wanted desperately to be good. Some needed to be perfect. To be something more than flawed and human. But we weren’t good or perfect. We were college kids. Human beings. So the inevitable drama ensued. Who was dating who, who wanted to date who, who was in love with who?


In our world, dating was a very serious affair. A direct precursor to marriage. If you kissed someone, it was a sign that you were well on your way to marriage. This lead to a lot of couples getting together, not because they wanted to, but because they felt they had to make something right. To atone for their sin of being attracted to someone.

The more I write about it, the more complex I realize the culture really was, especially for me.

I was raised in a liberal universalist home. So all this conservative, group, pent-up, emotionally-sheltered stuff was brand new to me. It was a truly foreign culture. And everything was hierarchical. Every relationship had to be run by an adult in charge for approval. If you were interested in someone, you had to be “held accountable” in groups of three with your peers to talk about your relationship.

To put it bluntly, the church had a strange terror about pre-marital sex. An obsession with purity. Not just sex even, the idea of a couple being alone together.

There were wonderful things about this church. Humans don't stumble into miserable situations by accident. Initially, the church offered something shiny. Clean. No drugs. No alcohol. Lots of healthy introspection and maturity. Good clean fun like you might find in a 1950s filmstrip about how to throw a party. There was bowling and concerts and ice cream and movie nights. For a nervous little square like me, it was the perfect setting.

For the record, most churches are naturally messed up places. A church is just a collection of imperfect people. Often times, churches are the only places that accept everyone into the fold. This inevitably makes for an interesting mix of humans. People with unique backgrounds and different ideas about the way the world "should" be. But it was also a culture of repression and I was an outgoing, loud-mouthed geek girl raised in an uber-liberal environment. 

And then…

I dated a really fun guy. We barely held hands during our couple of months dating, Which meant going out to meals together and hanging out in big groups. When I broke up with him because I didn’t see a future together, he was not so fun anymore.

The very act of rejecting someone who didn't have much experience with rejection created a bigger chemical reaction than I anticipated. I'm almost afraid to write about the details, but at one point, he threatened suicide if I wouldn't get back together.

Just like everyone else in this story, I hope he's okay now. I hope everyone is okay now. My friends quoted Bible verses at me to let me know it was my fault. ("Do not awaken love before it so desires.")

P.S. She fights robots too.
In fact, if you liked or dated a boy and maybe kissed (but usually not) but didn’t marry, you were considered a tease. Well, I didn’t marry a lot of boys. Naturally, I was always enemy number one after the break-up. (I say always, but I think I had three boyfriends over the course of five years. Three, you guys. THREE.)

This was in a world where couples who had never gone on a single date would get engaged in elaborate ceremonies after talking everything through with their mentors in the church. (Similar to the current trend of prom proposals.) Needless to say, expectations and tensions were running high and I was considered a massive failure.

It was misogyny light. A culture of "good" boys with hurt pride and "bad" girls with guilt complexes. A culture of pressure and shame. A group of well meaning, but misguided people trying to do things "right". In my opinion, it was the blind leading the blind.

So I finally settled down with one guy. In retrospect, I honestly think it was partially out of the pressure to succeed. This guy, he was my winner. My champion. We would date and be married, all according to a plan. We talked about it often. Envisioned our wedding. I even had my dress picked out. His parents had a washer and dryer saved for us in their garage. I finally got with the program. We were even going to be missionaries together after we graduated.

He sort of disappeared emotionally after the first year of dating. Probably tethered by guilt, he didn’t want to end our relationship. We dragged the whole mess out for another year in the style of some over-dramatic soap opera. All because of this cultural pressure to get married. After attending the wedding of one of my family members and experiencing his ongoing and complete lack of attachment to me, I broke up with him. (It took two break-ups, actually, to make it stick.)

But we still ran in the same circles. Still did the same church activities. It was torturous. Probably for both of us. Never having a clean break. Having to go to the same church where at least two men thought I was the devil in disguise and where one felt guilty for not marrying me, the old ball and chain…all of this before the age of twenty two

There’s a hilarious picture of me floating around somewhere from this era. I wish I could find it. It's from a weekend church retreat. Everyone is down by a lake shore on the last day, doing baptisms in the bright yellow sunshine framed by an explosion of autumn colored trees. Everyone looking happy and refreshed. Jubilant. Like something out of a velvet painting or a Mormon pamphlet.

I’m entirely apart from the crowd, standing by a tree, looking depressed and wearing a bright red coat and Jackie O sunglasses. You could’ve drawn an arrow above my head and written the word, “alone” over it. Much of my misery was self-imposed because I refused to trust my gut and just walk away from a situation that was making me miserable. 

And then things got worse. I could tell you horror stories of encounters with men who hated women at the church, things they said to me about myself or women at large. But I'll spare you the details. Because part of me still feels like I have to be quiet about the whole experience. And part of me still can't write about it.

When someone does something cruel to you, they don't want anyone to know about it. So they scare you into being quiet...and I was quiet. (It wasn't the boyfriend by the way, and nobody hurt me physically. I think. But there was legitimate stalking. Follow me around, track my activity stalking. And there was yelling. And cornering. And shaming. And other stuff I don't want to write about. was abuse. Notice how I have to say all this in parentheses. Because it still scares me to admit the things that happened.)

Suffice it to say, I was in a place, a culture, where I no longer belonged. Where I never belonged in the first place.

And then I remembered Buffy. When I was emotionally confused, feeling this strange sort of guilt and shame for…oh I don’t know, having breasts or being unmarried, I could turn on the tv and watch Buffy staking vampires. Buffy walking the cemeteries of Sunnydale late at night, defeating demons. Knowing the clear difference between right and wrong. Good guys from bad guys. That was it.

I couldn’t get rid of my demons, but Buffy had enough strength to kill an entire town’s worth.

Of course, my demons weren’t really demons. They were just people. And thoughts. I thought I was bad. Not holy enough. Not pretty enough. Not spiritual enough. I thought I was damaged goods. My faith had ceased to become about God. Instead, it was about other people. This strange, dysfunctional community.

I think I knew I needed to break away about a year before I actually broke away.

That last fall, in 2003, when I would return from a bible study or a women's group meeting, I'd feel full of pent-up rage. Sometimes I would cry. I didn't understand why. Then I'd feel like a bad person for feeling that way. Watching Buffy released my anger.

All the punching and kicking, all the training montages, all the secret weapons she could find and wield were cathartic. I'd take that energy to the gym with me and run it out on a treadmill when I couldn't say it out loud. At that time in my life, I was running half marathons. I even ran a full. I guess I had a lot I couldn't say.

As I’ve always done with the action heroines of film and television, Buffy (and yes, God...but I don't know how to write about God yet) became my lifeline out of depression and my light at the end of the tunnel. When I wasn't strong enough to stand up for myself, when I couldn't say, "Pardon me, but I won't be taking your culture of woman-hating crap anymore," I could watch Buffy say anything and everything to each demon before she staked them in the heart. Silenced them forever.

I’m sorry to say it took me years to separate my actual feelings from the guilt and shame imposed on me by wrong-thinking people. My Buffy-watching dwindled. I didn’t need her as much anymore. She was my geek security blanket. My mascot. And when I felt strong enough, I didn’t need to get vicarious thrills watching her defeat evil anymore. 

I can look back now and see everything so clearly, like how and when I should've stood up for myself. I see the obvious divide between my spiritual and social life. I can read the differences between what God thought of me and what people thought of me. But back then, it was all so murky.

I just knew that something about watching that girl kick ass felt right. (Yeah. I said "ass".) I know now I needed that type of strength. Not in that hyperbolic and violent form, but in my self-worth and conviction. 

I still think of those wasted college years spent in depression and self-loathing. I wish so much that I could go back knowing what I know now. I wonder what I could've become if I would've actually focused on the COLLEGE PART OF COLLEGE instead of church.

When I start to steer into grief over wasted time, I just find Buffy on Hulu and delight in the way that she punches the bad guy right in the face. Over and over and over again.  

The Buffy Comic

1 comment:

  1. This by far is the most important blog I've ever read concerning the overwhelming misogyny that can occur in youth groups and College church organizations. Sex is not a bad thing and unfortunately young adults are made to feel that it is and then as you say repress it and become super weird and sheltered never knowing how to deal with their natural feelings. Thanks for putting this out there for others to read.